A lot of people will tell you to spend as little time as possible in San Jose. These people probably haven’t given San Jose a chance though!
Sure, you probably won’t want to spend more than 2 days there, but there are still plenty of things to keep you busy for a few days.
Most people will arrive in Costa Rica via San Jose, and it’s a great place to learn a bit about the country. There are a number of museums that are worth visiting, plus the free walking tour will help you get to know Costa Rican culture and its history.
It’s a city with diverse architecture, ranging from colonial-era mansions, art deco apartments to modern skyscrapers. All of which are surrounded by majestic volcanos and green hills.
Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in San Jose and how to experience them.
Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting San Jose — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
Top tours in and around San Jose
- San Jose Free Walking Tour. Claim your free spot
- Day trip to Irazu and Turrialba volcanoes, plus a coffee plantation and church. Book here for $130
- One of Costa Rica’s best tours: A day trip to Arenal Volcano, Hot Springs, & Zip Lining w/ Meals. Book it here for $160
#1 Go on a free walking tour around San Jose
The free walking tour of San Jose is a must! If you’ve just arrived in Costa Rica, then it’s a great introduction to the country and its capital.
San Jose Free Walking Tours is a project developed by locals and as the name suggests, the tours are free. Well, not quite, you can tip what you think it’s worth at the end of the tour.
If you join one of their tours, you’ll spend 2.5 hours walking around San Jose listening to the passionate stories of the guide, on topics such as history, art, politics and tico-lifestyle.
Along the way, you’ll visit the National Theater, Colegio de Señoritas, Democracy Plaza, China Town, National Museum, The National Park, and more!
It’s the perfect way to see the hidden gems of San Jose, which you may miss if you’re exploring the city on your own. Plus you’ll get several recommendations from your guide on where to eat and drink.
Where to book?
#2 Visit the stunning National Theatre
The National Theatre is one of the best ways to spend an hour or two in San Jose. If you only have time to do one thing, this is the place to visit.
Dating back to 1891, the National Theatre is considered one of the finest historic buildings in San Jose. You can clearly see this from the outside as you admire the Neo-classical design and intricate statues.
The real ‘wow moment’ is when you step inside. The theatre’s interior is exquisite, decorated with lavish furnishings and beautiful murals.
The guided tours help you to really appreciate the theatre as you walk around the stage and visit the president’s box. They also touch on periods of Costa Rica’s history, giving you a better understanding of the country.
Tours run Monday to Sunday from 09:00 to 16:00. Tickets cost $2.70.
#3 Get lost in San Jose Central Market
The San Jose Central Market is like a maze, so don’t worry if you end up getting lost! It’s the best way to see everything.
Unlike other markets, this one actually isn’t overwhelming. The sellers are very relaxed and friendly, rather than pushy. You’ll be able to find stalls selling everything from fresh produce, souvenirs, coffee to traditional herbal medicines and much more.
The market is open from 06:30 to 18:00.
Where to eat in the market?
A staple dish that you’ll be able to find at every Soda is Casado, a traditional dish in Costa Rica made up of rice, beans, salad, or sometimes pasta, and meat. You can find meals for as cheap as $2!
We’d recommend checking out Soda Tala. The waitresses shout your order to the chefs upstairs, creating a crazy but fun atmosphere in the little restaurant.
You should also stop by Lolo Mora’s Ice Cream. They only sell one flavour of ice cream, but trust us it’s good!
#4 Explore Costa Rica’s National Museum
Even if you don’t plan on going inside the National Museum, the building alone is worth seeing. The museum is set inside the Bellavista Fortress which was built in 1917 and originally used as military barracks.
It’s also now known as the place where former president, Jose Figueres Ferrer, abolished the army in 1948. This moment of time is actually marked on the 10,000 colones banknote.
Inside the museum, you’ll find a number of displays of Costa Rica’s history and culture. These range from pre-Columbian times, all the way up to the present day.
There are plenty of fascinating objects on display that has been unearthed throughout Costa Rica, including the huge bolas de piedra (stone balls) which still remain a mystery.
How to visit
The National Museum is open Tuesday – Saturday, 08:30 to 16:00, and Sunday 09:00 to 16:40. Entrance tickets cost $11 for adults and $6 for students.
#5 Visit some more of San Jose’s museums
As well as the National Museum, San Jose has a number of other museums to explore. You probably won’t have time to visit them all, so here are 2 other museums we do recommend visiting:
The outside of the Jade Museum looks rather grey and cold, but inside the museum, they did a great job at showcasing the jade in its full glory.
The museum is home to over 7,000 pieces of Jade, making it the largest collection of pre-Columbian jade in the world!
Most of the incredible pieces are images of animals and depictions of societal organisation.
The Jade Museum is open Monday to Sunday 09:00 to 17:00. Tickets cost $16.
Pre-Colombian Gold Museum
If you’re wondering, the pre-Columbian stage is the era before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.
The Pre-Columbian Museum is home to one of the largest collections of pre-Columbian gold in Latin America. The artifacts tell the stories of the tribal peoples and civilisations that lived in Costa Rica before it was colonised.
The museum is open from 09:15 to 17:00. Tickets cost $15 for adults and $11 for students.
Top tip: You can buy a three-museum pass which costs $33. This will give you access to the Jade Museum, National Museum and Pre-Colombian Gold Museum). You can buy this at the ticket booths at all 3 of the museums.
#6 Buy some souvenirs at the Municipal Craft Market
If you’ve forgotten to get your family and friends souvenirs from your trip to Costa Rica, head to the Municipal Craft Market. This market is slightly better than the Central Market if you’re just looking for souvenirs.
Here you’ll find rows upon rows of little stores that are selling pretty much any souvenir you can think of. There are paintings, keychains, shot glasses, clothes, jewellery. You name it, you’ll probably be able to find it here.
Make sure to haggle with the original prices of things, as the majority of the time the sellers will be able to go lower.
The Municipal Craft Market is open from 08:00 to 19:00.
#7 Have one of the best meals of your life at Cocina Eclectica
We mentioned Cocina Eclectica in our ‘where to eat’ section in our Ultimate San Jose Guide, but we couldn’t help but mention it again here too.
Cocina Eclectica isn’t just a place to get some great food, the whole night is an experience!
Instead of a normal restaurant, chef Joanna invites you into her charming home for a 5/6 course meal. There’s no menu. Joanna asks if you have any dietary requirements and then decides what she would like to cook for you.
Over the course of the night, delicious and healthy dishes are brought out. There’s no rush, giving you time to digest before the next course and simply enjoy the ambience of her home.
The food is absolutely spectacular and the whole night, including a drink, will cost around $16!
To book a table you’ll need to send Joanna a Whatsapp message. Her number is +50685292509.
#8 Go on your own brewery tour and try craft beer
When you think of San Jose, you probably don’t think of craft beer, but there are actually a number of great places to grab a pint.
It’s a great way to spend an evening, hopping between the different breweries, sampling their own home-brewed beers.
If you only have time to go to one, then our favourite in San Jose is Wilk Craft Beer.
Top tip: Order a flight of beers. These are usually samples of their beers, from light to dark. This allows you to find which one you like the most, without having to order a whole pint of it!
#9 Treat yourself and watch a film at the cinema
If you’ve got a stopover in San Jose, and you’re not sure what to do. Why not go to the cinema?
When travelling we often don’t do things we could do at home, like going to the cinema, but it can be nice as a treat.
San Jose has a number of really nice cinemas scattered across the city. So no matter where you’re staying, there’s probably one nearby.
The great thing about the cinemas there? Tickets are probably half the price of what you’re used to paying at home. You also won’t be spending $6 on popcorn here.
We’d recommend Cine Magaly. The entire cinema feels as if it was built last year and is extremely clean. The seats are super comfy and the screens are relatively small and intimate.
You can check what’s showing by visiting Cine Magaly’s website.
Day Trips from San Jose
If you want to escape the concrete jungle for the day, there are plenty of places to visit just outside of San Jose:
#10 Learn about coffee production in the Central Valley
A lot of us are pretty removed and disconnected from how coffee is made. We crave and indulge in cup of coffee, but rarely give a second thought to how it ended up on our tables.
Which coffee farm should you visit around San Jose?
Costa Rica is one of the best countries to do a coffee and chocolate tour. In Costa Rica, there are around 43,000 coffee farms, with a number of them situated within the Central Valley. This is where you’ll also find San Jose, making a visit to a coffee farm a great day trip.
Finca Rosa Blanca
Finca Rosa Blanca is situated high in the mountains, on the slopes of Poás Volcano and Barva Volcano. Using their 30 acres of rich soil, they produce high-altitude organic coffee that simply tastes amazing!
The farm is focused on sustainable practices, using no pesticides or petrochemicals, just employing effective and natural methods to help the organic coffee flourish.
It’s also more than just a coffee farm. You can stay in their homely and beautifully decorated inn for a few nights, relaxing and soaking in nature.
How to visit Finca Rosa Blanca
Hacienda Alsacia farm is one to visit if you’re a Starbucks fan. It’s their first and only coffee farm in Costa Rica.
Their mission is to make growing coffee more profitable for small-scale farms, develop the next generation of disease-resistant coffee, and share information and resources freely with farmers around the world.
Although Starbucks is a big corporation, you’re still helping the little guys and encouraging more big companies to create partnerships with these small-scale farmers.
How to visit Hacienda Alsacia
The tour around Hacienda Alsacia lasts for 1.5 hours and costs $30 per person.
The 240-hectare farm is located an hour from San Jose, at the base of the spectacular Poás Volcano.
#11 Visit Irazu Volcano and its beautiful crater lake
One way to take a break from San Jose is to head to Irazu Volcano just 1.5 hours east of San Jose. It’s actually Costa Rica’s tallest volcano, standing at an impressive 3,432 meters.
It’s also still an active volcano, with its last eruption occurring in 1994. Don’t worry though, you’re completely safe!
You may be thinking, ‘oh wow that’s a long hike’, but you won’t need to do much walking. You can drive to the top and enter through the national park. From the car park, it’s just a short walk to the main crater.
The crater is a massive 1,050 meters in diameter. And if you visit during the rainy season, you’ll be able to see a bright and beautiful blue-green lake at the bottom of the crater. The colour looks almost radioactive!
What else is there to see?
Once you’ve seen the main crater, there is also a smaller, inactive crater called Diego de la Haya.
You can also visit Crater Playa Hermosa (not to be confused with the beach on the west coast of Costa Rica). It’s a huge area of flat land that is the remains of an old calderic rim. The ground is covered with grey ash and volcano rock, with no vegetation. It’s quite moon-like.
Tickets cost $15 and entrance is between 08:00 and 14:00, whilst the actual park closes at 16:00.
You can book your tickets here in advance or you can join a tour that includes the entrance fees.
Booking a tour
If you don’t fancy the hassle of getting there yourself from San Jose, you can book this day tour that takes you to two volcanoes, Irazu and Turrialba for $130 per person.
The tour lasts the whole day and also includes a visit to the Basilica of the Angels Church and a coffee plantation. Alternatively, you can also book a half-day trip from San Jose to Irazu Volcano for $99.
Slightly longer day trips from San Jose
To fully experience Monteverde and La Fortuna we would recommend staying at least a night or if possible longer. There’s so much to do in both of these places that a day just isn’t long enough.
To find out about more amazing things to do in these two destinations check out our guides:
#12 Day trip to Monteverde – hanging bridges in a cloud forest
Monteverde is a small area set within the mountains, famous for its cloud forests. A great tour to join is the Monteverde Hanging Bridges Day Trip from $165.
Here’s what’s included:
- Hanging bridges tour in a cloud forest
- 2-3 hikes where you’ll get to see beautiful views, monkeys, toucans, possibly the rare quetzal bird, and much more
- A lovely lunch
- Visit the largest fruit stand in the country
- A stop to a viewpoint usually filled with monkeys
All transportation is provided, so you don’t have to worry about anything. If you don’t have enough time to stay in Monteverde, this is a great alternative way to experience all it has to offer.
Only visiting Monteverde for one day? Book your day trip to the Monteverde Hanging Bridges
#13 Day trip to La Fortuna – waterfalls, coffee, ziplining, hot springs + more!
Again, you can also visit La Fortuna independently for the day, but we’d only recommend this if you have a car. Using the bus won’t leave you much time in La Fortuna as you’d have to get the bus by 17:00.
This tour to Arenal Volcano will guarantee a jam-packed, fun day. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the day entails:
- A stop and tasting at a coffee plantation
- La Paz and San Fernando waterfalls
- Iguana bridge to see iguanas, sloths, toucans and monkeys
- A traditional Costa Rican lunch
- Ziplining through the rainforest
- End the day relaxing at the base of Arenal Volcano at Paradise Hot Springs
- A delicious dinner
If you’re tight on time, this is definitely the best way to tick everything off your list. And all you have to do is join the tour, sit back and go with the flow.
Only have one day to visit La Fortuna? Book here your day trip to Arenal Volcano, Hot Springs, & Zip Lining adventure
Most popular ways to get to San Jose
Rounding it up
Now you’ve picked the best things to do in San Jose, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in San Jose, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning!
Barceló San José - Treating Yourself
Barceló Hotel blows most other city hotels out of the water. It has amenities usually only found in resorts, and for extortionate prices. Here you’ll find an outdoor pool, spa, gym, three squash courts and two tennis courts. Plus they offer a free airport shuttle.
If you don’t fancy venturing out of the hotel to get some food, no worries! There are three restaurants and a bar on site offering a variety of different cuisines. The rooms are spacious and clean, providing comfortable beds for a good night’s sleep.
- Outdoor swimming pool and spa
- Tennis courts
- Free airport shuttle
- Three onsite restaurants and a bar
Double rooms start from $80 per night
Isla Verde Hotel - Mid Range
Isla Verde Hotel is a real gem within the urban jungle that is San Jose. They have so many extras that you wouldn’t expect for the price – a gym, free shuttle to the airport and a great breakfast every morning.
The hotel is ultra-modern, boasting some beautifully designed rooms and seating areas. All of which are very clean and comfortable. If you don’t feel like venturing too far for food, their onsite restaurant serving Cantonese food is highly reviewed!
- Free airport shuttle
- Delicious breakfast included
- Onsite gym
- Modern and clean rooms
Double rooms between $50-$80 per night
Eco Stay Hostel - Budget Friendly
Eco Stay Hostel starts to feel like home after a while, as it has a shared living room, communal kitchen, a lovely garden area, and even barbeque facilities. You can even spend your evenings at the hotel having a friendly competition of snooker or darts.
The friendly hosts add to the welcoming atmosphere. Making sure that your room is clean and comfortable, whilst offering their help in any way that they can. The rooms are basic, but nicely decorated and have everything you could need whilst in San Jose.
- Shared living room
- Communal kitchen
- Good location
- Friendly hosts
Double rooms between $15-$50 per night
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